Democrats have come close three times now to rebuking President Trump. In KS-4 they turned a 27 point Trump district into a seven point nail biter. Last month, they almost won outright the primary for Tom Price’s old seat in Georgia. Democrats had a shot in Omaha’s mayoral race until they engaged in political suicide over Heath Mello’s position on abortion. But, in all cases the party fell short and in politics there is no medal for finishing second.
Now Democrats have turned their attention to the Montana at large house special election. The seat became vacant after then Congressman Ryan Zinke was nominated by the President to be Secretary of the Interior. Zinke first won election in 2014 with 15 percent and won reelection last year with a similar margin.
Democratic activists are excited to test the theory of whether a Bernie Sanders style progressive can win in deeply red territory. Rob Quist, a folksy, cowboy hat wearing Bernie fan is running for the seat while Republicans nominated 2016 gubernatorial nominee Greg Gianforte.
Donald Trump won the largely rural and white state by 20 points and unlike in other statwide races Democrats have not won a statewide race for Congress since 1994. Republican strength in the rural areas should make this seat safe. But GA-6 and KS-4 showed in the right circumstances Democrats can do well and compete (but so far not win).
Two recent polls have shown Quist within spitting distance of Gianforte. A Gravis survey from May 4th showed Gianforte ahead 45-37 percent while a Gary-Hart-Yang survey commissioned by the DCCC found Gianforte with a 49-43 lead. Such polling suggests this special election will be competitive.
Montana is a fairly unique red state. While it has a Republican state legislature and its sole House member has been a Republican since 1994, Governor Steve Bullock and Senator Jon Tester are both Democrats and have managed to put together winning coalitions (twice). So can Quist do the same?
Tester and Bullock (A Repeat of the 80’s and 90’s)
Both Bullock and Tester have found success in statewide races by replicating the political map of Dukakis in 1988. For example, while Barack Obama struggled in urban and rural places alike, Tester managed to come fairly close to recreating Dukakis’s political coalition. Hillary Clinton did even worse than Obama.
Tester managed to win by doing what Obama and Clinton could not. He did not let the bottom fall out in rural areas. He won around 40 percent of the rural vote and over 50 percent in small towns and big cities. Further, he managed to run up the score in college towns in the Western part of the state. By contrast, Clinton did not even manage to win 50 percent of the vote in large towns and she won less than 30 percent of the vote in small towns.
Tester’s map is similar to Dukakis’s 1988 bid. For reference, Dukakis lost the state by six points while he lost nationally by eight points. Republicans managed to run almost even in urban centers but were unable to build big margins in rural areas.
Of course, today is not 1988. A lot has changed in the state and nationally. Rural voters, particularly in the Eastern Plains, were more hospitable to Democrats in 1988 than they are now. While population centers have gotten bluer Democrats have gotten the short end of this stick.
But Tester and most recently Bullock were able to turn back the clock on Montana’s political preferences. So how did they do this?
All Politics Is Local
Voting is a complicated and personal process but one can draw a couple conclusions from Tester and Bullock’s victories. First, they ran as Montana Democrats. Not national Democrats!
Take Tester. The Senator is openly pro-gun and campaigned heavily on cutting wasteful spending. He has also vowed to reform the ACA (but not repeal it). Bullock was one of the first Democratic Governors to call for a cautious approach to Syrian resettlement and supported the Keystone XL Pipeline. Such positions mark them as moderates in an increasingly liberal party.
Secondly, both project Montana values (ie. not cultural cosmopolitanism). Tester wears cowboy boots and proudly talks of hunting while Bullock first won election in 2012 running an ad featuring nothing but endorsements from police officers.
Such a strategy is reminiscent of Democratic successes in deeply red West Virginia where Joe Manchin has largely done something similar. Now, Montana is a red state and Bullock and Tester are not going to appeal to every voter. They tend to win reelection by narrow margins no matter how many culturally conservative and big town residents they convince. But a win is a win.
I need to add a caveat here, the above is not always true. Obama lost the Big Sky State by a mere three points in 2008 while winning nationally by seven points. Obama was culturally and fiscally liberal and as a result he ran behind (but only somewhat) his national numbers in the state. By 2012, his liberal agenda cost him the state by 14 points.
So Where Does This Leave Quist?
Quist obviously fits the cultural appeal of his state with his accent and cowboy boots. But it is unclear whether he will or even can follow his party’s statewide winners paths.
For starters, Quist’s campaign is being fueled by the incredibly liberal grassroots. The same grassroots that turned on Heath Mello in Nebraska over abortion and is divided between Clinton type feminists and Sanderistas. Quist may find it hard to turn toward being pro-gun and/or being ambivalent about abortion.
Quist has already found himself in a bind because of this dynamic. Quist hinted in an interview he was open to bringing back the assault weapons ban, a nod to his progressive fundraising base. But, in turn, Gianforte pounced on him and is turning him into a cultural elite loyal to his base.
Further, the majority of Quist’s donations are coming from out of state unlike Bullock. Again, this has made Quist fodder for being beholden to a political, liberal elite.
Now, Gianforte has his own issues. He is a wealthy businessman and has been attacked for being too fiscally conservative and beholden to special interests. Be he also has the cash to finance his campaign and name ID from his prior gubernatorial run.
A lot will depend on the shape of the electorate in three weeks. If turnout in the cities is up Quist is sure to benefit. But, even if it is lower and turnout in the rural areas is higher Quist still has a shot if he can distance himself from the national party. Gianforte is already doing that with Republicans in regard to the AHCA.
A lot can change in three weeks but as of now the race looks competitive with the GOP maintaining an edge in the contest.